Emre Altun – Harmony Public Schools
Texas schools are facing a significant teacher shortage, with educators leaving the profession in droves and 77 percent of those who remain saying they’re considering changing careers, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Headlines like these are what keep Emre Altun up at night. As chief human resources officer at Harmony Public Schools, a Houston-based charter school system specializing in STEM education, Altun ensures teachers are supported, paid well and have a healthy work-life balance. But there’s no denying that retention is one of his top concerns.
“I define success by whether I can make my employees happy,” he says. “I want to support them in any way we can and get rid of obstacles for them. When I make a change that helps an employee or a school, it makes me happy.”
Altun has also been streamlining Harmony’s internal processes to keep the organization running smoothly. He recently led an HR software switch to combine Harmony’s HR, finance and payroll systems on one platform. When his team struggled to implement the new system in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Altun attended training sessions so he could better support his employees.
“It was a challenging time,” he recalls. “We signed the contract with the new company before COVID, and then COVID hit. It was really important to me to support my team during this major transition. They have done an amazing job.”
Attracting and retaining teachers
Harmony schools average 650 students per campus, with a total enrollment of 40,000 students across 60 schools throughout Texas. There are also more than 40,000 students on an admission wait list, so Harmony has implemented a lottery system to determine who gets in.
Having students who want to learn can make a big difference to a teacher, Altun says. Finding those teachers, however, presents another challenge entirely.
Altun has launched several initiatives to make Harmony attractive to instructors. One is a mentoring program for first- and second-year teachers, in which the new hires are assigned a mentor teacher who provides support with pedagogy, instruction, classroom management, campus culture, policies and procedures. Another involves daily support from campus instructional coaches, who lead data-driven efforts and follow Harmony-endorsed instructional coaching models to provide wraparound support.
Moreover, most lesson plans are created by Harmony’s central office, so teachers simply need to process the information and make some preparations before presenting the material to their students.
“We try to take the burden off our teachers, and that’s why they feel really appreciated and valued,” Altun says.
Innovating on bonuses
Another program Altun launched involves performance-based bonuses for teachers. Harmony was one of a few districts in Texas to start this trend, which has become popular in the state, according to Education Week. The bonuses hinge on teachers meeting student growth and teacher observation targets; if they do, they receive bonuses according to a rubric Altun and his team created.
To fund the bonuses, Harmony applied for governmental and corporate grants, including from the U.S. Department of Education, which has given the district nearly $100 million so far to pay for its projects.
Additionally, in 2020, Texas introduced the Teacher Incentive Allotment program, which designates teachers as Master Teachers, Exemplary Teachers or Recognized Teachers and gives bonuses accordingly. Harmony now counts 621 of its teachers as Master, Exemplary or Recognized teachers, which amounts to roughly 25 percent of its teaching workforce.
“I feel like, if I can put more money toward our staff members, it helps,” Altun says. “Now some teachers are making six-figure salaries; they are making more than their principals.”
Making culture a priority
Another ongoing project at Harmony is the School of Character recognition, awarded at both the state and national levels to schools that conform to the 11 principles laid out in Character.org’s Framework for Schools. Principles include creating a caring community, fostering self-motivation and more. Because the distinction is awarded to individual schools, each of Harmony’s campuses has to meet the standards on its own merits.
“It’s not an easy designation to earn,” Altun says. “All students, staff, parents, teachers—they all have to be participating and collaborating to make sure a certain culture is established.”
So far, 14 of Harmony’s campuses have become either state or national Schools of Character. The school system’s goal is to get all 60 of its schools designated as Schools of Character.
“I know in five years we will achieve that goal,” Altun says. “Of course, everybody needs to be involved in the process so that we will have the best culture.”
To that end, he makes school culture a top consideration when hiring new teachers and administrators, ensuring that new hires are a good fit before starting the onboarding process.
Decompressing with family
While Altun says the job has been deeply rewarding, it’s not without its challenges, be they investigations, compliance issues or grievances. Those can make for quite the whirlwind, which is why he relishes spending time with his family—including his 7-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter—at the end of a long day.
“When you get home and see the family, and kind of detach from that type of work, it’s pretty relaxing,” he says. “So that’s what I prefer to do with my free time.”
An avid sports fan who plays soccer and basketball, Altun says his favorite parts of being out on the pitch or court are scoring and passing—fitting for someone whose role revolves around getting everyone involved.
When he gets a break from work, Altun likes to take trips with his family. They’ve taken several road trips to California and, one year, to the northeast. On shorter breaks, they rent a lake house in Texas and commune with nature.
At work, Altun is grateful to be part of a school system where the kids want to be there and the teachers are happier than their counterparts in neighboring districts.
“I’m happy when the district is succeeding,” Altun says. “Harmony has diverse talent, and everyone is supportive and respectful toward one another. It’s a safe and collaborative environment, which is why I love working here.”
View this feature in the Vision Vol. I 2023 Edition here.
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